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The Goals of Social Research

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1 The Goals of Social Research

2 Literature Charles Ragin (1994): Constructing Social Research, Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press,

3 Goals – in general “Social researchers seek to identify order and regularity in the complexity of social life; they try to make sense of it” (Ragin 1994: 31) There are others, more specific goals, that are contributing to this overall goal

4 7 major goals of social science (Ragin 1994: 31 ff.)
Identifying general patterns and relationships Testing and refining theories Making predictions Interpreting culturally or historically significant phenomena Exploring diversity Giving voice Advancing new theories

5 1. Identifying general patterns and relationships
For many this is the primary goal (resembles hard science goal) General patterns are socially significant, i.e. relevant for large parts of society Need to look at many cases (one or few cases not necessarily representative) Think of an example

6 2. Testing and refining theories (Deduction)
Large pool of social theories already exists Limitless potential to combine, adapt or transfer to other fields Method: deductive hypothesis testing according to classic scientific method Over time unsupported ideas fade from social science thinking, others are highly fertile and are progressively improved

7 3. Making predictions Predictions about the future (vs prediction of what we expect in a data set = hypothesis) Predictions are based on Knowledge of history (e.g. Stock Market Crash) Knowledge of general patterns (e.g. crime rises when legitimate job opportunities decrease) Predictions can lead to/prevent specific policies (highly relevant) Predictions – usually broad projections of possibilities rather than pred. of specific events

8 4. Interpreting culturally or historically significant phenomena
Not only general patterns, but also “atypical” events are socially significant because of their impact on who we are today (e.g. French Revolution, US Civil War) Interpretations of the hows, and whys of these events are contested but have heavy impact on our social life Researchers of general patterns generally do not address issues related to the consciousness of their subjects or other aspects of the causal mechanism at work.

9 5. Exploring diversity In some way complementary to the study of general patterns There are exceptions to general rules (e.g. high literacy, still poor or low literacy, but wealthy) Focus on the variety of social life, rather than on dominant patterns (they are not the whole story) Could entail normative appreciation of sociodiversity (multi-culturalism) Anthropologists often engage in exploring diversity Often seemingly homogenous groups are in fact diverse Whether there is diversity or sameness, is often only to be found out by looking for diversity (-> goal exploring diversity)

10 6. Giving Voice Step-up from just exploring diversity
Objective not only to increase knowledge on marginalised groups, but also to disseminate this within society Inductive research. No preconceived theories, but looking at reality through the eyes of your research subjects This goal is very contested in social science (charge: advocacy) But: all research gives voice to some groups/phenomena, this form of research makes this aim and the group explicit

11 7. Advancing new theories (Induction)
Inductive approach: on the basis of new evidence, researchers develop new concepts, new ideas about relationships Opposite to goal 2 “testing theory” (deductive) This goal often goes hand in hand with (is based on) goals 5 and 6 “exploring diversity” and “giving voice” But even the goal of identifying general patterns may lead to theoretical advancement (hypotheses may fail, new relationships are explored)

12 Attention ! Different goals are legitimate
Hard science goals (1-3) Goals stemming from social nature of social science (4, 6) Deductive (2) and inductive (7) approaches These seven are not the only ones This is Ragin’s position on social science; others do not necessarily agree

13 Induction, Deduction, Retroduction
What is induction, what is deduction Mind Game Ragin: most research includes elements of both Retroduction = the interplay of induction and deduction “Research involves retroduction because there is typically a dialogue of ideas and evidence in social research” (Ragin 1994: 47) (more detail next week)

14 Goals and Strategies No research(er) can tackle all goals
Some should not be tackled in the same study (theory advancement and theory testing should not done with the same empirical data) Practical tensions: researchers cannot examine many case in detail (resources) Researchers embark on specific research strategies (pairing of research objectives and methods) to accommodate multiple and competing goals There is no “correct” way of conducting research. Different strategies are possible, yet the three main strategies may be identified as:

15 3 Strategies of Social Research
The use of qualitative methods to study commonalities The use of comparative methods to study diversity The use of quantitative methods to study relationships among variables Note: these are only the most common pairings of goals and methods. Other matches are possible! Ragin differs from traditional dichotomic distinction between qualitative and quantitative research by adding the comparative method by conceptualising these strategies along a continuum



18 Results There is not one goal, but several different legitimate goals of social research There is no complete agreement as to what is a legitimate social science goal Different goals require different research strategies Research strategies may differ with regard to the number of cases and the number of aspects under investigation

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